Assembly leaders seek to head off abortion filibuster

January 14, 1991|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Evening Sun Staff

The abortion battle developing in this year's General Assembly may turn out to be less a struggle over women's rights than a test of leadership's ability to control what happens in the first few weeks of the session.

It's no secret that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who watched in dismay as a debate over abortion reduced Senate business to shambles for eight days last year, intends to shut the chamber doors against a return of the filibuster.

To that end, the popular but strong-willed Prince George's County Democrat has let it be known that he backs an abortion-rights bill containing some version of a parental notification clause.

Last year's unresolved fight was between those who favor and those who oppose abortion rights in general. But this year, the dividing line appears to have been drawn between those who want a so-called "clean" version of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision -- allowing unrestricted access to abortions -- and those who say that the public prefers a more moderate law that would include parental involvement if a teen-ager decides to seek an abortion.

Miller, a Catholic who came out on the abortion-rights side last year, is said to believe that a notification clause will satisfy most voters if an abortion bill becomes law and is petitioned to referendum two years from now. To stem criticism from the abortion-rights camp opposing notification, Miller's preferred bill may contain an exception that allows a teen-ager to have an abortion without telling her parents if a physician says she is mature enough to make the decision by herself.

Hard-liners on both sides of the abortion question see Miller's attempt at compromise as a straw man. It's too liberal, say staunch anti-abortionists. It's too restrictive, says the other side, contending that such a law would be counterproductive if it meant that just one teen-ager died of an illegal abortion in another state because she did not understand the notification clause.

Because he apparently senses that most Marylanders and lawmakers will accept abortion rights with restrictions, Miller has set about trying to limit the influence of the most zealous pro-choice forces. In this case, he generally has kept abortion-rights lobbyists at arm's length from his office and has sent the message that their influence on the Senate body should be limited.

"This is a matter that will be decided by the Senate," he said recently, "and not by anyone else."

But Miller's early stand on the issue does not mean that he will smother abortion debate on the Senate floor. He encouraged the filing of a clean version of Roe vs. Wade last week. He hand-picked the respected Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-City, to be chief sponsor of that bill as well as a forthcoming bill that will reflect the Senate president's moderate approach.

Miller's strategy, according to State House insiders, is to allow debate on the issue while lining up the votes needed to prevent a filibuster and to pass the moderate bill. If he succeeds, it will mark at least a pretext of improvement over last year's abortion debacle.

The 1990 session saw virtually no real debate on the issue and the Senate was spared further injury from a prolonged filibuster when it passed over to the House a set of complicated and contradictory abortion bills. The whole matter was shelved until this year when the House promptly killed the bills in committee.

Although abortion-rights lobbyists are monitoring action on both sides of the Assembly, many say they are counting on their allies in the House of Delegates to push aggressively a clean abortion bill.

"I think the House is as tired as we are of the Senate's shenanigans," said one.

A House version of the clean Roe vs. Wade bill could be filed within a week. Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, D-City, said a separate notification bill could be filed as well, letting the House deal with the issues as two distinct measures.

"We clearly are confident in terms of codification [of Roe vs. Wade]," said Rosenberg, who is working with Del. Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Carroll, on the abortion-rights legislation. "The unknown is where people are on notification, to what extent the law should treat teens differently from adults."

For his part, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, says he is more concerned with getting abortion proposals out of committee onto the floor for debate than with the bills' content.

Both Mitchell and Miller have agreed that the bills will be aired before a committee of members from both houses, perhaps before the end of the month.

Lobbyists suggest that Miller has attempted to defuse a filibuster by giving key members of last year's battle new positions of power in exchange for their allegiance to Miller's plan.

Not so, says Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's, an abortion opponent who moved from second-in-command to chair the influential Senate Finance Committee after previous leader Catherine Riley chose not to seek re-election.

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